Commentary

Time to rise and shine for John Isner

Updated: April 5, 2012, 11:09 AM ET
By Sandra Harwitt | Special to ESPN.com

John IsnerAP Photo/Mark HumphreyNow leading the U.S. team to its tie against France, John Isner gets another shot in the Davis Cup limelight.

ROQUEBRUNE CAP MARTIN, France -- There are a couple of American-related tennis truisms that are impossible to get around.

First, Mardy Fish, ranked No. 9, is the highest-ranked American player in the game. Second, for the past decade Andy Roddick has been the guy holding up American tennis throughout the world and his current No. 29 ranking hasn't diminished his star status.

But there's another truism that increasingly cannot be ignored. Neither Fish nor Roddick is the American player currently on the tennis world's radar. That honor belongs to John Isner, a 26-year-old late bloomer who took the unorthodox route of going to college for a degree before joining the tour.

Isner is coming off his first two weeks in the elite top 10 -- at No. 10 -- during the Sony Ericsson Open. This week he has dropped down a spot to No. 11, but there's only a meager 100-point differential between Fish and Isner in terms of ranking configurations.

While Isner might not officially be the top-ranked American -- at least not yet -- this weekend he will have a preview of what it's like to play the leading man's role. It will be the North Carolina native heading the U.S. team against France in the Davis Cup quarterfinal at the majestic Monte-Carlo Country Club.

Not even Wednesday's dank conditions -- overcast skies with a constant drizzle -- could dampen the beauty of the club nestled in a cove of the Mediterranean Sea. The setting was the backdrop for Isner to practice with Ryan Harrison, who was a late addition to the team when Fish called in sick. The two practiced under the watchful eye of U.S. Davis Cup captain Jim Courier, who knows a thing or two about playing on European red clay as the 1991 and '92 French Open champion.

On Tuesday, Isner said his upgraded status following the withdrawal of Fish will in no way impact the bottom line of his job on the team.

"I went into this tie thinking I was going to be No. 2, the No. 2 player, but obviously now I'm the No. 1," Isner said. "It doesn't change anything. I got to go out there on Friday and try to win a match for us no matter who I'm playing. For me, it's still the same."

Isner certainly has been the American providing the best results of late. He's been on the upswing since the second half of 2011, winning two titles: Newport, R.I., and Winston-Salem, N.C. He went 25-7 in match play the final six months of last year.

This season, Isner took down Roger Federer 6-4, 3-6, 6-7(4), 6-2 on indoor clay during the Davis Cup first round in February. The match took place in Federer's backyard, leaving a packed arena of Swiss fans in disbelief.

Then came the victory Isner refers to as "the biggest win of my career, thus far" -- a 7-6, 3-6, 7-6 semifinal win over world No. 1 Novak Djokovic to reach the BNP Paribas final last month. His luck ran out against Federer in the final, but his stock as a top player rose sharply.

"I knew going into this year that I had the tools and I had the game to at least compete with these guys," Isner said. "I take the court no matter who I'm playing expecting to win and believing to win. There's really no reason to take the court if I believe otherwise."

Unlike previous generations of American players, this latest group of guys are genuinely friends and like to see each other doing well. And when one is performing to high standards, the other guys tend to offer compliments.

"John's played tremendously this year and the end of last year, and I haven't," said Fish at the Miami tournament last week. "He's played better than me. I'm a fan of his and he's a really good friend of mine. I root for him as much as I root for Andy (Roddick), James (Blake) and the (Bob and Mike) Bryans."

Federer isn't surprised by the recent rise of Isner. He saw top-quality tennis potential in Isner from the time he first encountered the American.

"I thought he was always gonna be top 10 from the first time I played him, to be honest," Federer said. "You know, he's a threat on all the surfaces. He can really bring that serve and his game. He can do it in a way that it works everywhere, really. That's going to make him extremely difficult to play."

Some might question clay as a surface on which Isner would fare well. But use caution in making that assumption. Isner actually enjoys the slower pace, which affords him a little extra time to plan his shot-making.

"It doesn't matter what surface John is playing on, his serve is going to be a nightmare to deal with if he's having a reasonable day, a normal service day," Courier said. "His first and second serves are both so extreme, as far as what angle they're coming in. He's, I think, gaining in confidence in that department, which is something to see.

"He talked pretty clearly about how he doesn't mind clay," Courier added. "He's very comfortable on the surface and feels confident he can have good results on it. Not having a mental obstacle, that's a big part of the puzzle."

Although Isner's spent only a short time under the guidance of Courier during Davis Cup, the former four-time Grand Slam champion has proved to be an effective influence.

Last year, when the U.S. played Chile in the Davis Cup first round in Santiago, Isner felt dejected after a 6-7, 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, 6-4 loss to Paul Capdeville. Although the U.S. had already won the tie and the fifth match could've been abandoned, Courier chose to have Isner play the unknown Guillermo Rivera-Aranguiz in the belief that Isner badly needed a Davis Cup victory (he won 6-3, 6-7, 7-5.) Courier also wanted more time on the court coaching Isner.

Fish believes that the Davis Cup experience with Courier has helped lift Isner's game to new heights.

"I saw it firsthand. I saw (Courier) change the way (Isner) played in five days, and it was pretty impressive," Fish said. "(Courier) just makes you accountable, accountable for every point you play in practice and every shot you hit. You respect his voice because he's been there; in every situation you're in, he's been in."

This Davis Cup tie will be a new experience for Isner. In the past, the responsibility probably would've overpowered Isner, but with his newfound confidence and Courier in his ear courtside, he might just be able to make a statement. And with Harrison named to his first team as an actual player, Isner and the Bryans are going to have to be the dependable links to handling the French lineup of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gilles Simon, Michael Llodra and Julien Benneteau.

FYI: For those who are wondering why the French are playing this Davis Cup tie in Monte Carlo, Monaco, they're not. The venue might be called the Monte-Carlo Country Club, but it's actually located in Roquebrune Cap Martin, France. In this area off of the Mediterranean Sea, country delineations can get blurred, as Monte Carlo is only a block away.

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.